Potential vaccine for the novel coronavirus promises relief but key questions shadow effort

Angelica Resendiz, a registered nurse with the Malheur County Health Department shows one of the syringes used to deliver flu vaccine. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – Health officials will remain locked in a long struggle to tame Covid until a vaccine is developed and distributed, but even then, the virus will likely continue to sicken and kill people, according to Malheur County’s top health official.

National health leaders and the Trump administration continue to clash over the effectiveness of a vaccine and when it will be ready but down in the trenches of the Covid biological war front-line leaders continue rear-guard actions to reduce infections and deaths.

“It is how can we lose the fewest amount of people until we can get to the other side – a vaccine,” said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

Meanwhile, social distancing measures, in-school restrictions and deaths because of Covid will continue.

“We are a long, long ways away. Right now, we are trying to reduce the risk and the risk is in the public behavior with risky activity,” said Poe.

Across the globe, medical researchers are scrambling to develop a Covid vaccine but only one nation – Russia – has approved a serum for the infection.

In the U.S., Operation Warp Speed linked federal agencies with 18 pharmaceutical firms to fast track a vaccine.

Earlier this month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alerted health officials in all 50 states to be prepared to distribute a Covid vaccine to high-risk groups as soon as October or November.

Tom Jeanne, Oregon deputy health officer, confirmed last week the CDC asked the state to take “preliminary steps for distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine by early November.”

“These first steps are important to be ready to immunize Oregonians with a safe and effective vaccine,” said Jeanne.

Yet when a vaccine will be available remains unknown and even when one is approved for use, it won’t be a magic bullet, said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine (infectious diseases) at Vanderbilt School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn.

“First of all, when lay people think about a vaccine, they think about a completely effective vaccine. That’s unlikely to be the case. We have vaccines of varying degrees of effectiveness,” said Schaffner.

Schaffner said vaccines for tetanus and measles are “as close to 100% effective.”

“The flu vaccine ranges anywhere from 40% to 70% of effectiveness. Most scientists believe this (Covid) vaccine will be somewhere between the flu vaccine and the measles vaccine. So, it will not be completely effective,” said Schaffner.

Schaffner said a vaccine will not be a “suit of armor.”

“It means we will have to keep wearing masks because a third, and we don’t know which third, will continue to be susceptible as they were before,” said Schaffner.

Schaffner said another challenge will be distribution of a vaccine.

“The two leading (vaccine) candidates are two doses of the vaccine separated by a month. That means it will take much longer for us to vaccinate people. The vaccine program will stretch out. Furthermore, we won’t have enough vaccine for everyone on day one,” said Schaffner.

Schaffner said a vaccine program will “extend over months. Months plural.”

“And about half of the U.S. population are kind of antsy about this vaccine and will be standing back before they come in and roll up their sleeve,” said Schaffner.

Many people locally “are not interested in a vaccine,” said Lt. Rich Harriman, Malheur County Emergency Services director.

“That’s because of a lack of trust in the system,” said Harriman.

Harriman said that means the struggle to contain the virus will be lengthy.

“We are still going to have active cases even after the vaccines start coming out. We could be looking at Covid-related illnesses at least until the end of 2021,” said Harriman.

Harriman, though, said “at least there is a light at the end of the tunnel” with a vaccine.

Jeanne said the state recognizes “that people need to trust that a vaccine works and won’t harm them. Otherwise many people will be reluctant to take it.”

“Any federal action to short-cut established, independent scientific clinical trials, reviews and approvals risks undermining confidence in a COVID-19 vaccine, as well as the public’s trust in other vaccines,” Jeanne said.

There are other questions regarding a vaccine, said Schaffner.

“We don’t know what the duration of protection will be. Will it be eight months? A year?” said Schaffner.

Poe said at least 60% of the population of the U.S. – about 196 million – will need to be vaccinated to curb the virus.

Until a vaccine is widely available, said Poe, the Covid mitigation measures – such as specific restrictions – are “going to stay.”

Poe said she hopes the county and the nation won’t face a long struggle against Covid once a vaccine is developed but she isn’t counting on it.

“It is a possibility and we are preparing for it. Because as long as you have cases the more people can be potentially infected,” said Poe.

Schaffner said Covid is “not just going to disappear” with a vaccine.

“The Covid virus will integrate itself into our population as flu does and we will have to adapt to it. We may have to change some things in our culture. The eastern countries, for example, for decades have been wearing masks during flu season. We may have to do that,” said Schaffner.

So, for now, Schaffner said, “Don’t throw away your mask.”

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at pat@malheurenterprise. com or 541-235-1003.


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